Since the dawn of the 21st century, import-brand automakers have taken the lead in hybrid powertrains. Honda and Toyota paved the way: Honda with its Insight and Civic Hybrid; Toyota with the renowned Prius.
With the exception of Ford's Escape Hybrid and its Mercury Mariner counterpart, the domestic manufacturers have lagged well behind in gasoline/electric power. Moreover, when they do introduced a hybrid-powertrain model, it's likely to be an adaptation of a full-size SUV or pickup truck, with a hefty gasoline V-8 providing part of the energy. Even if fuel economy is significantly improved over the regular gasoline-engine truck, it's still far from frugal.
That's precisely the case with Chrysler, which, until the 2009 model year, failed to play at all in the hybrid field. Now, near-twin hybrid SUVs are being prepared for sale, using the company's advanced two-mode gasoline/electric system. Both the Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango hybrids are based on substantial-sized SUVs, with 5.7-liter Hemi V-8s beneath their hoods.
Unlike some early hybrid trucks, these two are "full hybrids," which means they can run on battery-only part of the time - particularly at low speed, under light load. Developed in partnership with GM, Daimler, and the BMW Group, the hybrid system includes a 300-volt battery, electric drive motors, and the 385-horsepower, Multi-Displacement V-8 gasoline engine.
Chrysler claims 25-percent greater fuel economy than the regular gasoline Aspen, and close to 40-percent improvement in city driving. At the same time, the Aspen Hybrid can tow up to 6,000 pounds.
The continuously variable transmission (CVT) has two modes. One mode is for low-speed operation, using either battery power, gasoline, or both. The gasoline can shut itself off while moving at lower speeds. Mode two is meant for highway use.
Seating up to eight passengers, the Aspen Hybrid contains leather-trimmed front bucket seats and a second-row bench. An eight-way power driver's seat is standard; four-way for the front passenger. Wood accents are used on the door panels and the instrument-panel's center stack.
In most details, the new Hybrid is essentially the same as the gasoline-only Aspen that debuted for the 2007 model year, with either a 4.7- or 5.7-liter V-8. Climbing aboard is a bit daunting, but relatively wide running boards help. A column-mounted gearshift lever operates the transmission. Despite its ample dimensions, the Aspen is easy enough to drive, and handles with as much confidence as some smaller SUVs - and on par with most of the full-size competition.
Ride quality is about as luxuriously comfortable as expected, though Aspen is not quite the gentlest big SUV, premium or otherwise. Cargo space behind the third row is modest, but there's plenty of room for people inside.
Transparency is a key operational feature. Most of the time, it's difficult, if not impossible, to discern whether the gasoline engine is running, because it's so quiet and emits little vibration. Just once in a while, you may feel a very slight "bump" as the Hemi V-8 kicks in. Also, when starting off from a standstill, a slight whine sometimes appear, but only for a moment. Otherwise, power delivery is smooth and effortless, just like the regular Aspen.
As in regular Aspens, the instrument panel centers around a huge nautical-style speedometer, but a tachometer is absent. Instead, the driver can observe a hybrid-powertrain indicator, with a needle that moves through Charge, Economy, and Power segments, depending on what is happening in the system. When idling, the needle sits between Charging and Economy.
Fuel-economy estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency have not yet been released, as the Aspen Hybrid and its Dodge Durango do not go on sale until early autumn. In comparision, the 2008 Aspen with a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 got an EPA estimate of 13 mpg in city driving and 19 mpg on the highway. In a short trial of mostly city driving, a test Aspen Hybrid managed close to 17 mpg.
Aspen/Durango Hybrid production began in late August. Prices will start at $45,570 (including destination charge) for the Chrysler Aspen Hybrid, and $45,340 for the Dodge Durange version. Chrysler claims these prices are almost $8,000 below the competition.
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